From Ian and Sylvia to Cream to Mountain starting in Lasell Gymnasium

Editor’s note: Our classmate Jeff (January) Williams, guitarist and luthier, who today lives in Salem, Oregon, was the prime mover behind Lloyd Thomas’s recollections of the  Ian and Sylvia concert that many of us remember so fondly. Jeff has since kindly supplied us with his own take on that event, and in so doing, traces forward the career of one of the backup musicians, bassist Felix Pappalardi who went to greater fame as collaborator/arranger/composer for the Youngbloods, Cream (Strange Brew) and later founded the group Mountain. January’s recollection covers a lot of ground, touching on several memorable musical moments of our time at Williams.

Here’s a picture the author supplied of himself from 1986, on the cover of American Lutherie:

Lloyd’s detailed memory of that weekend so long ago amazed me – something I hadn’t thought of for decades but which oddly seems clear. I remember it was a great concert, but it almost didn’t happen at all.

It was snowing that day, lightly all day, great for homecoming. We crowded into the hall and settled into our spaces with our friends with the usual buzz, anticipating the energy a performance wafts out into a crowd. Sometime after the appointed hour, the hall quieted down as someone comes to the mic on the stage, a student from a committee or a sponsoring group to announce that the performers have called in and will be late. Naturally a murmur of disappointment ripples through the crowd. But folks didn’t flee, we settled into chat, visiting as couples, groups . . . and on and on. If we stayed for forty-five minutes, an hour . . . now we are invested, might as well stay longer, eh? The emcee got up there again after another hour and said that they were still expecting the band at any time . . . and then we waited another hour. I can’t imagine this happening today anywhere, from big urban venues to little college gyms in tiny towns – but hey, that was then. Ephs and women hanging in the gym, holiday weekend, snowing lightly.

Anyway . . . it was more than a couple hours before the band finally showed up, scuffling around the stage to set up, no sound check, just jumping into it, practically breathless, explaining their delay – the band had booked a private plane for the gig (remember Buddy Holly) to get them from Boston, but then the sky turned white, so, “no go.” They had to rent a van and thread their way down the long and winding Mohawk Trail. But Ian, Sylvia and the band were all practiced, experienced with the vagaries of their trade, grateful to still have an audience and got it together quickly.

Felix Pappalardi was playing bass; Ian asked him to “turn it down just a little bit” after the first or second number, but “not too much, Hoss, we want plenty of bottom.” A couple of things happened that made them more human: Ian, introducing a solo by Silvia, tried to credit her with a big voice, something like “belting out the blues” but oops, she (a very petite person) got something less flattering, more like “big momma”, and glared her disapproval, and he had to laugh and back out of it, said she might come back as a blues momma, but not with him (they were newly married at the time) and of course the show went on. Later he got lost and muffed a riddle line in the chorus of “Captain Woodstock’s Courtship” at which Silvia looked at him with some alarm as to whether he could keep it together, but he didn’t even notice, sailed right on through it, and well, maybe not too many folks in the audience didn’t notice it either. But hey, they were just folks like us up there doing what they loved and we loved it too. The rather bland label “folk” was on its way to becoming a new American standard, “singer/songwriter” with great new material, new musical ideas, and instrumental virtuosity.

Here’s how I think I got the tape. The radio station guys liked to do “remotes,” like broadcasting the football games from the field – the radio station broadcast the concert, and someone recorded a mono mix in the studio as it went out on the air off the feed from the house sound board at the venue; I doubt if the band knew about it. The main station machines were rack-mounted Ampex ¼ inch tape machines with a 10-1/2 inch reels. Doubtless I clandestinely dubbed the original onto a small reel in order to play it on my machine (Is WMS-WCFM still operating?) sometime after.  I had forgotten the other guys enjoyed it as much as I did.

Besides practicing production skills, I spent a lot of time there in the early afternoons just listening, exploring and dubbing stuff. I don’t remember having a record player then – too fidgety. I did have a quarter-track Panasonic reel-to-reel because it would run for hours on low speed and thin half-mil tape. I recycled whole shows like the 10:00 pm “Nightwatch” (remember the “Pink Panther”/Mancini theme?), and brother Ray Carey’s Rock and Roll shows, and on visits home to the Boston area I’d record hours of WBCN which was brand-new and then without sponsors so they didn’t have a lot of ads to air, just music, and a pretty adventurous mix.

Lloyd asked me what became of the tape, whether I might still have it. Well, I do know exactly. When my dad started having mobility problems we sold the ancestral family home in Sharon MA and went through piles of stuff, this was 2011. My sister found a box of tapes, a couple dozen including this gem, asked if I wanted to keep them. I thought, jeez, man, where’s the technology – I’d have to find an old tape deck and a pre-amp on eBay just to listen to them, and the tapes were so thin, 50 years old, they were fragile back in the day . . . so I just said, “Nah, toss ‘em.” .

Ironically like Lloyd I too have a “memory” of a concert I didn’t go to, the Velvet Underground. Rumor had it that they required so much amperage that the college had to pull a new 220 V circuit into the stage area at Baxter to accommodate the huge load of their equipment . . . and they put a cigar box of weed on the edge of the stage for the audience to enjoy. Oh well, I missed a walk on the wild side, but we did have a lot of good music – Karl-Heinz Stockhausen came with a quadrophonic version of Mikrophonie, there was a flamenco cuadro that explained about “compás,” the underlying rhythms and the various standards to illuminate their performance, then we had the local band Uranus and the 5 Moons in somebody’s suite on the top floor of Gladden, I think it was late fall senior year . . . but yea, Ian and Silvia at Williams, that was a great concert.

January’s guitar collection (partial)


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